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Complicated Grief

Complicated Grief

Complicated Grief

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” 
-Vicki Harrison

As we get older, loss seems to be inevitable. So, too, the grief that accompanies it.

We grieve for many reasons. Grief is a normal human emotion, especially when we are mourning a loved one’s death. However, when grief does not lessen with time or when interferes with our lives for too long, it takes on a new moniker: Complicated grief.

One of the differences between “ordinary” grief and complicated grief is that complicated grief doesn’t fade. It doesn’t lessen. You can’t let it go.

According to the Mayo Clinic, complicated grief is defined as “a heightened state of mourning where the emotions are so long-lasting and severe that you have trouble accepting the loss and resuming your own life.” It’s estimated that 15% of people experiencing the death of a loved one will develop this condition.

How do you know if you have it? A few of the symptoms include extreme focus on the loss and reminders of the loved one, intense longing or pining for the deceased, numbness or detachment, inability to enjoy life, and trouble carrying out normal routines.

Most of us have heard of the “stages of grief” as outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And while this model was widely accepted for decades, experts now acknowledge that grief isn’t that neatly organized. It’s a bit like a junk drawer in which lots of experiences and emotions reside in one place, but not necessarily neatly in order. Instead, the Center for Complicated Grief recognizes two phases: the acute phase of grief, and the integrated phase.

The acute phase houses those intensely painful feelings of sadness, guilt, longing, and anger, while the integrated phase is primarily centered on acceptance. In the integrated phase, although you may always feel a dull ache of loss, you are able to experience happiness again, too.

Grief can be particularly intense and long-lasting when there is a sense of guilt attached to it. Perhaps you feel as if you didn’t say enough or do enough. Perhaps you feel as if you made a wrong decision. Or perhaps you even blame yourself for thoughts you may have had. When guilt is attached to grief, many times it arises from distorted thinking. 

Are you focusing on the ways you think you failed, but forgetting all the ways you helped? 

Are you beating yourself up for things beyond your control? 

Are you forgetting that hindsight is 20/20, and you can only make decisions based on knowledge you have at the moment?

Katherine King, PsyD, writing for Psychology Today, says there are four key principles that can guide you through grief’s tough times: 

• Routines, which keep us grounded and let us weather the road ahead.

• Rituals, which help us acknowledge and process the loss.

• Remembrance, which helps honor the person in our memory; and 

• Restoration, which is the process of rebuilding our day-to-day lives.

Restoration is the key to moving beyond the acute phase of grief. If it feels like you can’t forgive yourself, or that you will never get over the loss—if you’re seeing the signs of complicated grief–it may be time to seek help from a professional and “learn to swim.”

Until we meet…